It is a mammoth task bringing history to life, and no mean feat for staff at the National Museum of Scotland who are preparing to roll its latest exhibition into town.
Yet despite disappearing into extinction thousands of years ago, mammoths and mastodons will be making their presence known in the 21st century in an impressive collection never before seen in Europe.
Visitors will not only come nose to trunk with a full-scale replica of the biggest of these enormous and mysterious creatures – which would have stood at around four metres tall – but they will also have the dubious pleasure of being able to see the preserved dung of a Colombian mammoth.
Woolly mammoth hair – which could grow up to a metre long – giant tusks and teeth, skull casts and fossil jaws are also among the fascinating objects that will feature in the Mammoths of the Ice Age exhibition.
“Next to dinosaurs, mammoths are the most popular of all the extinct animals,” says Dr Andrew Kitchener, principal curator of vertebrate biology at the museum.
“This exhibition will be popular with everybody, especially with families. These are exciting, large species and the exhibition will be packed with intriguing and interesting information. People will be able to find out lots of details about the life and times of mammoths.”
The collection will explore the mysteries of the Ice Age and reveal what life was like for the iconic mammals of this era who, unlike dinosaurs, lived side by side with humans for thousands of years.
Mammoths and mastodons not only proved a food source for early people, but also acted as artistic inspiration.
The exhibition will show some of the oldest artwork in existence, with pieces dating from between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Also on display will be a replica model of Lyuba, the 40,000-year-old baby mammoth who was found in 2007 by a Siberian reindeer herder and two of his sons.
She is the best-preserved mammoth ever discovered, with most of her features intact, providing great insights into how mammoths lived.
Alongside Lyuba will be the imposing, full-scale replica of the Colombian mammoth, which will tower over the museum’s other exhibits at four metres tall. And all of the collection – even the full-scale mammoth replica – will be travelling to Edinburgh from its home at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
But, fortunately, the delivery of such large-scale items should not pose a problem to the experts at the Chambers Street museum.
“The Colombian mammoth is the biggest ever known,” says Andrew.
“But the reconstruction will come apart in bits – a bit like something from Ikea,” he jokes. Just slot the bones together and create your own 3D mammoth. Plus we have a very big lift.”
Mammoths of the Ice Age will provide an insight into the interaction between each other and their environment, and will also explore the controversial debates surrounding the causes of their extinction, such as climate change, hunting by humans, cross-species disease and a meteorite hitting Earth.
“We know very precisely when mammoths became extinct,” Andrew explains. “It was thought it was about 11,000 or 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.
“But then remains were found on Wrangel Island, off the coast of Russia, and when they were radiocarbon dated, they were found to be from 4000 years ago – about the time Ancient Egypt was getting going, so well past the Ice Age.
“There are two main schools of thought about how they became extinct. One is due to climate change, when the habitat disappeared. The other is that it was early people who over-hunted the mammoth.
“However, there is also a third school of thought which suggests it was a combination of both. We have been looking at all the radiocarbon dating at the National Museum of Scotland and it does seem to be that the populations became more and more fragmented over time, towards the end of the Ice Age, so the combination theory seems very plausible.”
The interactive exhibition will ensure that visitors will not just learn how mammoths used their trunks and tusks, but will actually be able to manipulate a mechanical trunk to pick up objects and help a mammoth balance the weight of its tusks. They can also try their hand at jousting with tusks, imitating the behaviour of adult male mammoths who sparred for dominance and to win breeding rights.
Visitors can also learn about the differences between mammoths and mastodons, examining their social behaviour and ecology based on fossil evidence and comparisons with their present-day relatives, elephants.
Mastodons were shorter and stockier than mammoths, with thicker bones and differently shaped tusks. In North America, mastodons lived alongside mammoths because they had different diets and so did not compete for food, with a mammoth consuming an estimated 226 kilogrammes of vegetation every day. The family tree of elephants, mammoths and mastodons can be traced back 55 million years to its origin in Africa.
Nick Fraser, keeper of natural sciences at National Museums Scotland, says: “We are thrilled to bring Mammoths of the Ice Age to the National Museum of Scotland from the world renowned Field Museum in Chicago. The Ice Age was a fascinating period and we are excited to show how scientists have used a variety of evidence to reconstruct the lifestyles of these animals.
“We look forward to welcoming visitors and hope that they find these colossal mammoths as awe-inspiring as our predecessors did.”
The exhibition will open on January 24.